Last Tuesday night, animal welfare activists were poised to celebrate a victory five years in the making.
The next day, the House was set to overwhelmingly approve their measure to elevate the crime of animal fighting to a felony — a provision that gathered 324 co-sponsors in the 109th Congress but was blocked by then-House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).
With Democrats in power and a bipartisan roster of 303 co-sponsors, the Humane Society of the United States and others backing the proposal felt assured of swift passage. Then came word that the National Rifle Association was raising last-minute objections.
Though the powerful gun-owners group was silent when the House Judiciary Committee took up the bill last month — and had no position on the dogfights and cockfights the bill addresses — it had some technical concerns. NRA officials worried the language of the measure could open the door for animal rights advocates to forbid legal types of hunting.
“The Humane Society and other extremist animal rights groups, under the guise of saving puppies and kittens, are moving forward with their agenda of banning all sport hunting,” said Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist.
Cox declined to discuss his group’s tactics, but others close to the issue confirmed the NRA approached the offices of two of its most powerful allies in the Democratic Caucus — Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.) and Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (Minn.) — who agreed to take up the gun lobby’s concerns with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Hoyer pulled the bill from the calendar, and on Wednesday morning, Judiciary and Agriculture committee staffers hashed out a compromise that appeased both the NRA and the Humane Society. The measure is expected to come up for a vote early this week.
The Humane Society claimed victory —“We’re glad the delay was short and we’re moving forward,” said Michael Markarian, a lobbyist for the group — but clearly was rattled. Markarian speculated the NRA intervened simply to show they could. “Our feeling was the NRA was trying to meddle because they don’t like the Humane Society.”
So far in the 110th Congress, gun control advocates have not fared much better against their old foe. After more than a decade of playing defense, and losing, under Republican control, groups such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence woke up the morning after Election Day thinking a new era had begun.
“In this election, the gun issue was in play, gun violence prevention groups won while the gun pushers lost, and there is now a shift in momentum on the issue of common sense gun restrictions,” Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, said in a statement after the November elections.
Any lingering doubt about the gun lobby’s continued juice under Democratic rule was laid to rest Thursday. House Republicans, maneuvering to derail a bill to grant Congressional voting rights to the District of Columbia, inserted a provision in their alternative measure that would dramatically scale back the city’s gun restrictions.